By Don Heckman
Talent, Oregon. “Real Vocal String Quartet.” The words on the program guide seemed almost contradictory. What was it to be? One or the other? A vocal ensemble or a string quartet?
But when the four gifted members of the Real Vocal String Quartet began their concert Sunday night in the performance room of the beautiful Paschal Winery in Talent, Oregon, all the seemingly contradictory aspects of their name immediately disappeared.
The transformation began with “Kyili Turam,” a piece inspired by the Quartet’s fascination with world music, in this case from Macedonia. Starting with a full bodied string quartet opening, the four instrumentalists – still playing — moved close to their vocal microphones and enriched the string sounds with lush, four voice harmonies. The effect was astonishing, orchestral in its size, utterly gripping in its emotional impact. And it was just the beginning of the memorable program offered by the versatile artists of the Real Vocal String Quartet – violinists Irene Sazor and Alisa Rose, violist Matthias McIntire and cellist Jessica Ivry.
To say that the music was imaginative in every aspect of the word would only begin to describe a program that reached across a boundary-less array of genres. Classical, jazz, blues, Americana, fiddle music, world music and much more, all of it performed via a mesmerizing blend of authenticity and brilliant inventiveness – vocally, instrumentally and in combinations of both.
Titles were either unannounced or identified too quickly to register. But no matter; the significant information resided in the fact that most of the music was original, written or arranged by the four players – offering even more evidence of the expansive skills of this remarkable ensemble.
There were far too many highlights to list in the group’s eclectic selections. One of the most fascinating was a free improvisation, a completely spontaneous, unwritten, on-the-spot, brilliant four part composition. It’s a technique other groups have tried – dating back to the free jazz era of the ’60s. But I’ve rarely heard it delivered with the Vocal String Quartet’s inventive musical authority.
Another piece – violist Matthias McIntire’s whimsically titled “California Residents Blissful Despite Impending Earthquake” – displayed another quality, employing the group’s vocal/instrumental timbres with impressionistic impact.
In addition to their remarkable skills as an inventive musical collective, the four principals of the Vocal Jazz Quartet also displayed unique solo abilities. Each revealed convincing improvisational abilities. The two violinists – Irene Sazor and Alisa Rose – tossed riffs back and forth, slipping and sliding through blues licks, with the ease of a bebop jam. McIntire added an equal jazz authenticity to his soloing. And cellist Jessica Ivry energized the rhythm with Ron Carter-like bass lines interspersed with arching, classical counter melodies.
It was, in short, an evening overflowing with much to enjoy. The Real Vocal String Quartet, despite its seemingly confusing title, left this listener, no doubt among many others, with an evening that will be long remembered.